Survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda gathered on a hillside today to bury the remains of hundreds of victims recovered from mass graves to mark the 10th anniversary of the government-orchestrated slaughter that left more than 500,000 people dead.
The symbolic burial marks the beginning of a week of mourning for the Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority who were killed during the 100-day slaughter that tore apart the small central African nation.
The remains of hundreds, locked in 19 communal coffins, will be lowered into tombs by families and genocide survivors keen to give loved ones a ritual burial years after they were killed by their neighbours under the orders of the extremist Hutu government then in power.
President Paul Kagame – whose then-rebel force ended the genocide by ousting the extremist government – laid a wreath on the 20th coffin before lighting a flame that will burn for seven days at the central courtyard of the Kigali national memorial centre.
“Traditionally in Rwanda there is a fire that’s lit during seven days of mourning,” said James Smith of Aegis Trust, a group that designed and helped construct the memorial site inaugurated today.
As families and genocide survivors buried victims, thousands of Rwandans gathered at the Amahoro Stadium for a day of reflection on the horrors and pain of the genocide.
Cynthia and Sonia Dushime, 11-year-old twins whose entire family was killed during the genocide, handed a torch to Kagame for the lighting ceremony.
“Today is a special day because we get to remember our dead in a special way and bury them,” Cynthia said. “We miss our mama and papa, we never got to know them.”
At noon, Rwanda fell silent for three minutes before survivors described their experiences to the nation, African leaders and US and European officials attended the commemorations.
The genocide began hours after the mysterious downing of the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994.
Tutsis, who now dominate the central African nation’s government and army, say the slaughter began on April 7 in part because they do not want the date to coincide with the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane – a date with political meaning for radical Hutus.
Commemorations are being capped by an evening of mourning during which visiting heads of state and officials will join Rwandans at the Amahoro Stadium for 100 minutes of poems and choreographed movements by 800 children and the youth.